Air trade group predicts decline in holiday travel

WASHINGTON – About 9 percent fewer passengers will fly on U.S. airlines this holiday season than last year because of the weak economy, but planes will be crowded anyway because there won't be as many flights, a trade group for the major carriers said Thursday.

The Air Transport Association said that on the busiest travel days — expected to be Friday, Dec. 19, and Saturday, Dec. 27 — the average plane will be 90 percent full.

One benefit of fewer flights is less crowding in the skies and at airports. U.S. airlines improved their on-time arrival record in October, and officials of the industry trade group promised a focus on efficiency over the holidays.

The Washington-based trade group estimated that customers will board U.S. airliners 43 million times during a 21-day period from Dec. 18 to Jan. 7.

That figure is far higher than the actual number of people who will travel by plane, however. Some will make more than one trip. A round trip counts as two boardings — so does changing planes on a single leg.

Demand for air travel has been falling for several months. The Transportation Department reported Thursday that the number of passengers on U.S. airlines fell 8.4 percent in September, the seventh straight monthly decline compared to the previous year.

And October and November were worse than September. Calyon Securities estimated Thursday that passenger traffic fell 11 percent in November compared with the year-earlier month.

Airlines have responded by cutting flights. The airline trade group said U.S. carriers would offer 9 percent fewer seats this holiday season than a year ago, matching the decline in boardings.

John Heimlich, chief economist of the Air Transport Association, said "all signs suggest" that schedule cuts will deepen next year "primarily due to the rapidly deteriorating economic environment and the volatility of the industry's cost of operations."